The man made more than $54 million playing in the NBA, but one of the proudest moments of Kenny Thomas’ life came in December when he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico.
The former Lobo was finally a college graduate, the owner of a liberal arts degree that merely adds to a monstrous list of accomplishments that made him a household name in New Mexico and the hero of a generation of Lobo fans everywhere.
Between 1995 and 1999, Thomas was nothing less than the backbone of the greatest four-year run in the program’s history. The Lobos won 77 percent of their games, made the Big Dance four straight years and were a Top 25 power the entire time he was there.
His latest milestone was a sprint to the finish line, academically speaking. Lacking 25 credit hours, he went all-in with a full course load in the summer and fall to get his degree.
“It was one of those things that needed to be done,” Thomas said. “I made a promise to my mom, so there’s that. But I’ve got a son who’s now a sophomore at Georgetown and I wanted to finish my degree to show him it could be done.”
Any true Lobo fan remembers Thomas with a certain degree of reverence. He’s certainly on the Mount Rushmore of Lobo basketball greats, front and center with the all-timers like Mel Daniels, Michael Cooper and Luc Longley.
Recruited out of Albuquerque High in what was a golden age for monster recruits in New Mexico — he arrived at UNM the same year La Cueva’s A.J. Bramlett went to Arizona and New Mexico Military Institute’s Taymon Domzalski went to Duke — Thomas had a sustained run of dominance with the Lobos like few have ever seen. Listed at 6-foot-9 in high school (“Yeah, in the NBA I was 6-8 with shoes on,” he said) he remains the only player in school history with 1,000 career points and rebounds, ranking second on the all-time list for scoring and blocks, and tops in rebounds.
What’s more, he led the Lobos to three Western Athletic Conference Tournament title games and got them into the second round of the NCAA Tournament all four years. He was named an All-American as a senior and was a first-round draft pick in 1999 by the Houston Rockets, later spending time with the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings.
His teammates over the years included a who’s-who of NBA legends like Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Allen Iverson, and he went toe to toe with the greats like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. He retired after 11 years, scoring more than 5,800 points with more than 4,300 rebounds.
He posted a photo to his Instagram account (IG: kennythomasnba) of he and Kobe clutching a ball during a game during his time with the Kings. He and Kobe were roughly the same age, but Bryant was already an established NBA star by time Thomas arrived on the scene in 1999.
“Kobe always respected the way I played and he’d tell me things like he noticed how hard I worked and that he liked my game,” Thomas said. “He was a great guy with a family and kids, but he was such a great ambassador for the game. Not just for the sport, but for the guys he played against.”
Thomas averaged 14.1 points for the Rockets in the 2001-02 season and a double-double with the Sixers in 2003-04, when he averaged 13.6 points and 10 rebounds.
The entire time, he said, he always thought about finishing his degree. It finally happened when Lobos head coach Paul Weir helped make it happen.
“Earning a degree is an incredible accomplishment, and for him to come back and set this example for our student-athletes brings me great joy,” Weir said.
Weir has made it a point to help former Lobos come back and finish their education and reconnect with the program, including J.R. Giddens earning his degree last year. Weir had Thomas come to a game in The Pit as his guest in December, giving him the chance to poke around the building that truly rocked during his time as a Lobo more than 20 years ago.
Arguably the greatest UNM team of all time had Thomas at the heart of it. He was once teammates with players like Charles Smith, Clayton Shields, Lamont Long, Royce Olney and David Gibson. Thomas, Smith, Shields and Long are the top-four scorers in school history while Gibson is the career leader in minutes played and Olney was the emotional catalyst for the team and fans.
While The Pit isn’t quite the heaving mass of noise and energy Thomas remembers from his playing days, he said he finally feels a connection to the team again now that Weir is in charge.
“He’s bringing some of the old players back again, and that’s something the school really hadn’t done that much of,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of old guys out there who would like to come back and Paul’s a good person to do that. We just want to feel connected again.”
Now that he’s got his degree, he’s an even bigger part of UNM lore.